The maiden aunt is free: that's the real triumph of feminism

"Women have settled for a fake equality instead of true liberation." Discuss. More than 500 women across the UK did, as part of a survey undertaken by Germaine Greer's publishing house, Anchor. The statement is Greer's, and most women agreed with the professor's sad analysis; indeed, one in six said they have a harder time than their mothers did.

It sounds outrageous - 30 years of feminism and we're worse off than before. But do your own calculations. The typical middle-class mum of an earlier generation stayed at home and was spared the stress of competition and back-stabbing among colleagues; the fatigue of travelling to and from work; the guilt pangs of leaving the baby behind or the school-age children to fend for themselves in the afternoon - not to mention the condescension of career women who earn megabucks and boast a polished professionalism. And with hubby, no tension about the blurring of gender roles, no worry about whose job determines the family's lifestyle, or location.

Compare this model of equilibrium with today's harried, hurried working mum and wife; or with the wife and mother who feels worthless because she is not out there holding down a job - and you can see how today's woman might think herself worse off than her mum.

But she's a lot better off than her maiden aunt. Feminism may have trapped married women in an illusion of freedom which, in truth, pulls them every which way with competing urges and claims. For single women, however, feminism has bestowed freedom from being buried alive.

While mum was secure in the knowledge that her role was fixed and respected and part of a historic continuum, your maiden aunt was ignored and sidelined. Her barren status meant that she was, literally, not contributing to society and thus was regarded as a second-class citizen by all. The most she could aspire to was to play surrogate mother to her siblings' children, or to her friends' - a responsibility that the proud parents eagerly foisted upon her, thinking that in lending their little terrors they were doing the poor old spinster the greatest of favours. No compunction to respect such notions as private space or personal time: one suffers solitude, not enjoys it, after all; to relieve a woman of this burden was considered a charitable undertaking rather than a selfish deed. A few single women attained some degree of social kudos by acting as surrogate wife to a widowed brother or to one who was a "confirmed bachelor". Social life was confined to church bazaars and the elderly, who had no one else to befriend.

A generation ago, the single woman (or "gal", as she would have been tagged) might have worked, but it was unlikely that she would have a career. The sexes were not equal in the workplace, and women were kept on the bottom not so much by a glass ceiling as by the ball and chain of prejudice against their gender.

Look instead at the contemporary single woman. Forget the Bridget Jones stereotype: the real thing climbs the career ladder - and though she is still fighting for equal pay and equal status, no one bats an eyelid at her ambitions to improve her rank. Indeed, at some points in her professional life, she will find it an advantage to be female.

Perhaps more important is the impact that 30 years of feminism have had on her private life. At work she earns respect, outside work she sees it as her automatic right. This includes her "space", which is sacrosanct, and her access to entertainment (of all kinds), which is without bounds. Those around her dare take nothing for granted. No one would think of dumping their children on her; and no one but no one automatically assumes her unhappiness.

She may hear the biological clock tick, and whinge about the lack of a suitable man, but today's single woman is no one's maiden aunt. And it's the feminists wot dun it.

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